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Symphonies 1, 2, 3

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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Sextet No. 1 in B flat, Op. 18 [36:40]
String Sextet No. 2 in G, Op. 36 [38:56]
String Quintet No. 1 in F, Op. 88 [26:06]
String Quintet No. 2 in G, Op. 111 [28:51]
Alexander String Quartet; Toby Appel (viola); David Requiro (cello) (sextets)
rec. 4-9 February 2013, St Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, CA, USA
FOGHORN CLASSICS CD2012 [75:36 + 54:57]

The Alexander String Quartet has a special affinity for Brahms. Their expansive, romantic sonority is tailor-made for the composer: on this two-disc set the ensemble can sound like a whole string orchestra. Not for these players a “lean, mean” style, a wiry sonority, or an immature artistic choice. Listening to the ASQ and their friends play Brahms is like riding in a luxury car with an expert chauffeur.

I mean this in a totally admiring way. The string quintets, for example, with Toby Appel adding his viola, have hardly ever sounded better. These pieces are orchestral in scope, but playful in content. Brahms’ ambition is not as vast as in the other two quintets (with clarinet and piano). He said so himself: Brahms in the park “and all the pretty girls there too, eh?” The performances are utterly gorgeous, maintaining the lightness of the material, and the Viennese charm. There is no weak link among the five players, or even a middling one: they all offer their usual rich, full sounds and impeccable intonation. Two members of the Alexander Quartet are playing new instruments made for them by Francis Kuttner.

The sextets on CD 1 only add to this success. These are younger, longer, more energetic pieces. Eric Bromberger’s notes list them as half the great masterpieces for string sextet, alongside works by Tchaikovsky and Schoenberg. I can never forgive his omission of Dvořák’s. That said, the ASQ and friends play the first sextet with an emphasis on mellow feeling and fluid, graceful motion. It feels like a weekend in the country. What about the droning fiddle lurking in the background at 6:00 in the slow movement? The scherzo only reinforces the atmosphere of laid-back revelry. I prefer this kind of approach to the more driving, energetic versions you can find elsewhere.

This isn’t to say that the ASQ and friends are wimps; the third movement of the second sextet should disprove that contention. They always muster the necessary energy and verve. But they seem completely in tune with the Old Man Brahms, his attitude, and the mix of sumptuousness and deep reflection his music demands. This just confirms the greatness of the “ASQ and Friends” Brahms records we have reviewed previously, with the piano and clarinet quintets.

For competition to the set, you have to look hard. The Hyperion box set of all Brahms’ chamber music contains great alternative recordings by the Raphael Ensemble, and DG has some old (perhaps hard to find) quintets featuring the Hagen and Amadeus Quartets. The Uppsala Chamber Soloists tend to the more small-scale, classicized interpretation, and are very good for that. The sextets have been only slightly more popular, including a period-instrument reading by L’Archibudelli. That would probably make for an enlightening contrast with this very romantic version.

Given the superb recorded sound, which actually contributes to the sheer pleasure of the music-making, and the very thorough accompanying booklet, I have to give this the highest possible praise. This set will give you hours of delight.

Brian Reinhart